Question: I am doing a term paper on how the worlds major religions restrict women. I have so far dealt with subjects like abortion, the treatment of women in the middle east, and the how Catholicism refuses women from becoming priests. I have been researching Judaism for this paper as well, and ( being Christian) I was wondering about the treatment of women in the Jewish faith.
Answer: Your question really needs a book, not a paragraph or two. There is a really excellent book that can answer most of your questions about women in Judaism. It’s called “Feminism and Judaism: Women, Tradition, and the Women’s Movement” by MICHAEL KAUFMAN. Jerusalem: Heritage Press, 1996.
I’m not sure that I agree with your premise that the world’s major religions “restrict” women. Yes, Islam does, and maybe some sects of Christianity do, but not Judaism. True, Judaism does prescribe different roles for men and women, but that is no more “restrictive” than an orchestra assigning one person to play the violin, another person to play percussion. Would the violinist complain that he is “restricted” because he doesn’t get to play the drums?
What many people don’t realize about Judaism is that it is very much a home-based religion, with by far the majority of its rites, prayers and rituals being conducted in the home (the Passover seder is the best-known example). In this regard Judaism is quite unlike those religions where the entire religion revolves around prayer services in a public setting. While communal synagogue roles are assigned to men, most other rituals and religious expressions in Judaism are either assigned to women, or are assigned to both sexes equally.
The Torah is eternal and speaks to all times and places. There have been times and places where the Torah seemed to provide women with far greater status and freedom than was the cultural norm among the surrounding gentiles, and there have been times and places—especially modern-day America—where the separation of the sexes and differing roles seem to be out of synch with the latest cultural fashions.
However it is a grave mistake to think that the Torah “restricts” women any more than it “restricts” men. What it actually does—by giving both men and women the tools to reach out to G-d in their daily lives and to transform the mundane into the transcendent—what the Torah actually does, is it liberates both women and men from earthly bounds and frees both women and men to be their truest selves.
[Reposted from the archives]—Toby Katz